Friday, October 21, 2016

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter finds Schiaparelli crash site

New images captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appear to show where ESA's Schiaparelli lander crashed onto the Red Planet's surface.

The lander dispatched from its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, on Sunday, and began its descent through the Martian atmosphere on Wednesday. The probe successfully slowed its speed and was captured into orbit by Mars' gravity, but officials lost contact with the lander.

Scientists with the European Space Agency continue to analyze tracking data collected by TGO and their Mars Express probe.

The available information suggests something went wrong in the final moments of the lander's descent, causing the lander to hit the Red Planet at a considerable speed. The latest images from MRO confirm as much.

The photographs taken by MRO show two distinct features not present in a photo taken of the same landing site last year. One of the features is bright, and scientists believe it is the lander's parachute, which was dispatched after deployment in the final phase of the lander's descent.

The other feature is dark and is believed to be the lander's impact site. ESA engineers believe Schiaparelli's thrusters -- meant to slow the lander to a halt just above the Martian surface -- cut off prematurely, allowing the module to free-fall for the final two miles.

At such a high speed, Schiaparelli likely exploded upon impact.

"These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis," ESA wrote in a news update.

In addition to scanning the landing site with higher-resolution cameras, scientists will continue to sort through the data beamed from the lander to nearby probes during its final moments -- with hopes of piecing together the series of events that lead to its mechanical failure.

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